BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — As the US East Coast began to come back to life on Tuesday following Sandy’s wrathful rampage, the brief respite from electoral politics came to an abrupt end.
While President Barack Obama struggled to deal with the aftermath of one of the country’s worst natural disasters in history, his Republican challenger was confronting the ghosts of his own past right wing pandering.
Mitt Romney announced on Monday that he was suspending his campaign “out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy.” But on Tuesday he transformed a previously scheduled campaign stop in Kettering, Ohio, into a disaster relief event.
Ohio is one of the most hotly contested states in the election, and a key element of a Romney victory. The candidate, accompanied by Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, had asked that those attending the rally bring donations of non-perishable foods and other items for victims of the storm. Tables were piled with blankets, batteries, diapers, toilet paper and other offerings, according to The Washington Post.
This non-campaign event had all the earmarks of a rally, though, complete with celebrity endorsements from NASCAR driver Richard Petty and country music singer Randy Owen.
Romney’s emphasis on the private sector for assistance is no accident: He is on record as calling for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to be disbanded.
Last year, at a Republican primary debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH, Romney told CNN’s John King that the United States simply could not afford federal disaster relief.
“Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better,” said Romney. “We should take all of what we're doing at the federal level and say, what are the things we're doing that we don't have to do? And those things we've got to stop doing, because we're borrowing $1.6 trillion more this year than we're taking in.”
King asked him if these things included disaster relief.
“We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids,” replied Romney.
Damage from superstorm Sandy is expected to be in the $10 billion to $20 billion range — a staggering sum for individual states to absorb, much less the private sector. That sure is a lot of canned goods and toilet paper.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a staunch Romney surrogate, was full of praise for the president and for FEMA. Appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday, he said that the federal government had been prompt and efficient in rushing to the aid of his stricken state.
“I have to say, the administration, the president himself and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far,” said Christie. “We have a great partnership with them.”
New Jersey was one of the hardest-hit states, with extensive flooding, wide power outages and other storm-related damage. Christie said he and the president were working together on a Major Disaster Declaration for New Jersey, which would provide funding for recovery efforts.
Now that individual states are confronting actual disaster, Romney is backing away from his prior statements. What he really meant, according to campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg, was that the states should take the lead on disaster relief.
“Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” Henneberg wrote in an email to National Journal. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”
But with a very tight election just one week away, Romney will have a hard time ducking this bullet.
The Republican candidate is already in hot water for a campaign speech in Toledo, Ohio, in which he made the claim that “Jeep, now owned by the Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China.”
The statement has been widely debunked — Jeep is expanding its presence in China, says Chrysler, Jeep's parent company, but not shutting down US production.
The company says it is “a leap that would be difficult even for professional circus acrobats” to suggest that it would close US facilities and move all operations to China.
Nevertheless, the Romney campaign moved ahead with an ad reiterating the claim.
The Obama campaign is not taking this lying down: The president released his own ad on Monday, attacking Romney for misleading the electorate.
“Romney on Ohio jobs: wrong then, dishonest now,” ends the ad.
And Bill Clinton, Obama’s biggest advocate these days, told a crowd in Ohio on Monday, Romney’s statement on jeep was “the biggest load of bull in the world.”
Clinton will continue his role as “the secretary of 'splainin stuff,” as Obama called him at the Democratic National Convention.
The former president will be making campaign appearances in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Virginia, Wisconsin and Ohio in coming days, while Obama oversees disaster relief from Washington.
Romney will resume official campaign activities on Wednesday, heading to Florida and, on Thursday, to Virginia, another battleground state and one directly in Sandy’s path.
With so much of the country still in such distress, some have started — very gingerly — raising the prospect of delaying the elections.
There is almost no legal precedent for such a step, and any attempt to depart from long-standing practice would almost certainly be met with legal challenges from all sides.
But stay tuned. Stranger things have happened in this campaign.